Bella Italia: Best wines for the holidays

Tired of schlepping the same mediocre Merlot to your holiday gatherings? Why not escort an Italian beauty to liven up the party?

Italy has a long history of wine production. Our first impression is of straw bottomed Chianti bottles suspended from Bisetti’s ceiling. Modern Italian wines are far more diverse and mouthwatering.

Here are five Italian darlings to impress your fellow holiday revelers. All varietals are available locally at a variety of price points.

Barolos are produced in Piedmont region of northern Italy. This red wine is made from the Nebbiolo grape. Considered to be Italy’s top of the line, Barolos have a pushy, full-bodied flavor with a concentrated acidity. This taste is achieved through aging in large wooden casks. Traditionalists prefer waiting 10 years beyond vintage date before opening. Contemporary palates wanting a fruitier taste drink younger Barolos aged in new French oak. Barolos pair well with meat, heavy pastas and rich risottos. The vintage years of 2008, 2009 and 2010 have been amazing, but age really brings out their true character.

Barbaresco is a close cousin of Barolo, made from the same Nebbiolo grape but grown in a different district of Piedmont. Barbaresco’s slightly sweeter taste originates from a late October harvest and a slow fermentation process brought on by cool autumn nights. The ultimate result is a higher residual sugar content and a more graceful and elegant taste.

Prosecco is a long sleek sparking wine typically served before a meal. Originally from the village of the same name, Prosecco is made from the Glera grape, but unlike champagne uses a secondary fermentation process called Charmant. Prosecco employs stainless steel tanks in its fermentation process, producing a lighter taste than champagne. While many wines taste better with some age, Prosecco is best served within three years of vintage and chilled.

The ever-popular Chianti has gone through some significant changes in order to satisfy a thirsty market. A central Tuscany red wine with great name recognition, Chianti must contain at least 80 percent Sangiovese grapes. Through the 1950s Chianti wine production’s primary emphasis was on quantity rather than quality. Several forward-thinking vintners then began to experiment with the addition of Cabernet Sauvignon creating what were called super Tuscans. The most prevalent is Chianti Classico, from an area near Florence and Siena, is an affordable red with medium body and high acidity.

Limoncello is a traditional after dinner liqueur from the southern Italian area of Naples. Made from lemon zest, alcohol and sugar, Limoncello has a strong lemon taste without the bitterness of fresh lemons. With twice the alcohol content — 28-30 percent — of wine, Lemoncello can pack a punch. The process of making this liqueur is relatively simple, so home recipes abound. Just like sweet revenge Limoncello is best served cold.

Here are some road-tested favorites from 2014:
Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Red Blend Columbia Valley, Washington 2010
Santa Rita Reserva Syrah Maipo Valley, Argentina 2009
Frescobaldi Vineyards Nipozzano Riserva Chianti Rufina, Italy 2010
Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma, California 2009
Trapiche Broquel Malbec Mendoza Valley, Argentina 2011
Durigutti Malbec Mendoza Valley, Argentina 2013
Catena Malbec Mendoza Valley, Argentina 2011
Matthew Fritz Pinot Noir 2012 Napa Valley, California

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